Julie at moose camp

Julie Collins listens outside her moose camp for a bull during an earlier hunt.

‘BWA-A-R!” ... “BWA-A-R!” … “BWA-A-R!”

I snuggled into my sleeping bag, smiling to myself while listening to the irritated bellow of a cow moose as she backtracked away from the disagreeable odors lingering around my little encampment.

My frozen sand bar made a pleasant campsite during this year’s moose hunt. “The only problem with camping in a hot spot for moose is the likelihood that someone else already shot a moose nearby,” I had told my sister Julie before leaving her to care for the critters while I tried to locate our year’s meat. She understood the implication of hungry fall bears aggressively protecting a kill site.

I had looked the place over carefully. It’s true that a lone raven had flown up from behind the brush lining the opposite riverbank, but I’d been seeing ravens everywhere.

“Lots of bears. Lots of wolves. Not many moose,” earlier hunters had reported.

“MM-a-a-r-r!” … “Mwa-a-r-r!” “WAA-a-r-r!”

More bellowing began at 11:30 the second night, and something about it sounded different…more growly, increasingly complex phraseology, lacking the steady, even cadence of the cow. My eyes popped open.

“MM-AA-R-AA-RAA-RR-OO-AA-RR!!” one voice hollered.

“M-aa-rr-aa-wa-a!” a second protested, its bellowing overlapping the first.

My heart flip-flopped. Not a cow. I was listening to a couple of bickering bears, perhaps 50 yards away, just across the river and behind that screen of willows.

You know the sound a dog makes when yanking at meat on a bone he has pinned down with his forepaws; that resounding thunk of the bone slapping back down against the ground?

That’s what I heard, only bigger.

And the sound a dog makes when gnawing on a big knucklebone, his carnassials grating loudly against the hard surface?

I heard that too. I heard that a lot. Only louder.

The bellowing quieted down in a few minutes as one or both bears settled in to eat, slurping and grinding their way through what I suspected was the remnants of someone’s moose kill. I lay listening to them, wondering if I should leave my cozy sleeping bag for the 15-degree temperature to break camp and leave the bears in peace. I had no desire to awaken to the odor of bear breath if a still-hungry bruin peered into the open door of my tent.

Then again, I was not bothering them and they were not bothering me. The kill kept them busy across the river, and while the pair almost certainly knew of my presence, they apparently did not care as long as I didn’t intrude. Although I suspected a sow with a yearling or two-year-old offspring, I couldn’t tell if they were black or grizzly; either species might aggressively object to anyone approaching the repast that would help them survive long months in hibernation.

I was still debating my conundrum when I heard another distant sound approaching. “UNK…UNK…UNK…”

OK! That was a bull moose, grunting seductively as he worked his way up the far side of the stream in search of a cow. 100 yards from the bears he halted, no doubt evaluating his own dilemma. Eventually he worked his way inland, his path marked by the occasional rattle of heavy antler in brush, before finally vocalizing again, his deep voice now snorting as it receded: “UNKF. UNKF. UNKF.”

I have to say, it was a little creepy lying there listening to those bruins gnawing at the bones. Nearly three hours in, they were still at work when I heard another sound in the dark that once again made my heart go pit-a-pat; a faint antler tinkle in brush, this time just a hundred feet away. I quickly and quietly propped myself up on an elbow. The tent door, left open for encounters just like this, overlooked the sand bar and I spotted a dark antler moving toward me.

The bull stepped from the brush, just 60 feet away and fully exposed from his 45-inch rack to the tips of his hooves as they thudded onto the frozen ground. Had it been daylight, he would have been a perfect size for shooting, packing plenty of meat without being huge and gristly. For a moment he paused, gazing uncertainly at the tent. Lit by the dim light of a waning half-moon shining faintly through thin overcast, for a second he created an exquisite silhouette of black velvet against the midnight-blue sky, dusky slate sand, and luminous gray river beyond.

Then he eased to the water and stepped in. Moments later, as his hooves slipped and clattered on the frozen cut bank just upstream from the feeding bears, I turned on my headlamp in time to see his eyes reflecting back at me before he receded into the darkness. He started grunting softly as he proceeded on his mission. By morning he’d be long gone.

I have spent many a quiet, peaceful night in moose camps. This was not one of them.

After determining a conservative course of action would be to stay awake all night, I dozed off about 3 a.m. The gnarly sounds from across the river had faded out by then, but I did not know if the bears were napping there or had moved on.

“AY-YI-YI-YI-YI-YI!!”

Yet another loud voice pierced my sleep, quite abruptly, at 5 a.m. For Pete’s sake! The startlingly-loud hollering rang with the choppy staccato of a coyote except its tone was too deep. I switched on my light again. 50 yards across and down stream, two eyes reflected a shimmering green back at me. “AY-YI-YI-YI-YI!” it screeched again.

From the swamps several hundred yards farther away, a crescendo broke out as a pack of wolves burst into song, answering the youngster on the river bank. Off and on for half an hour the pack howled and sang, the murky night resonating with the rising and falling of their voices.

Eventually I fell into another slumber long enough to carry me to my 6:30 a.m. wake-up to listen for bulls just as the faint dawn began to lighten the sky. With a dearth of moose, if a black bear had made an appearance I wouldn’t have passed up the meat, but I declined to approach a brushy kill site alone. By mid-afternoon I had my camp set up a mile away, ready for a peaceful night.

As things turned out, those two bulls were the only ones I heard during my 5-day stay on the river. I returned home at dark on the last day of the season, skunked out of my main goal but rich with memories of an amusing night on the river.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.

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